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Hand-operated Devices For Moving Swell Shades


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#1 Brian Childs

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Posted 28 January 2006 - 04:55 PM

Hi everybody,

I seem to remember reading somewhere that some larger American Concert Organs are equipped with a slider switch in the Great or Choir key slip which on being moved from left to right opens/closes the swell box. Does anyone know if this is true ? Or did I dream it ?

If so this would seem to provide the obvious explanation of (and solution to ) the problem mentioned by Christopher Herrick in the notes which accompany his performance of Bossi's Etude Symphoique about the "unplayable" passage at the end where Bossi requires a swell box crescendo when both feet are otherwise engaged. Such would not be a problem on an organ fitted with such a device. And Bossi , like Dupre, was no stranger to large American organs.

How useful would such a device be on a modern concert organ ?

Brian Childs

#2 Graham Powell

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Posted 28 January 2006 - 09:51 PM

Hi everybody,

I seem to remember reading somewhere that some larger American Concert Organs are equipped with a slider switch in the Great or Choir key slip which on being moved from left to right opens/closes the swell box. Does anyone know if this is true ? Or did I dream it ?

If so this would seem to provide the obvious explanation of (and solution to ) the problem mentioned by Christopher Herrick in the notes which accompany his performance of Bossi's Etude Symphoique about the "unplayable" passage at the end where Bossi requires a swell box crescendo when both feet are otherwise engaged. Such would not be a problem on an organ fitted with such a device. And Bossi , like Dupre, was no stranger to large American organs.

How useful would such a device be on a modern concert organ ?

Brian Childs

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


There's another passage which springs to mind, in Howells' Psalm-Prelude Set 1 No.1, where both feet are busy playing seperate lines and a crescendo is indicated. The only problem is that such a device would surely depend on a hand being free to operate it. Either that, or the page turner I suppose...........

Graham

#3 Tony Newnham

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 03:50 PM

Hi everybody,

I seem to remember reading somewhere that some larger American Concert Organs are equipped with a slider switch in the Great or Choir key slip which on being moved from left to right opens/closes the swell box. Does anyone know if this is true ? Or did I dream it ?

If so this would seem to provide the obvious explanation of (and solution to ) the problem mentioned by Christopher Herrick in the notes which accompany his performance of Bossi's Etude Symphoique about the "unplayable" passage at the end where Bossi requires a swell box crescendo when both feet are otherwise engaged. Such would not be a problem on an organ fitted with such a device. And Bossi , like Dupre, was no stranger to large American organs.

How useful would such a device be on a modern concert organ ?

Brian Childs

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Hi

According to the new book on Wurlitzers published by the American Theatre Organ Society, some early organs of that make had a device that doubled as a swell position indicator and allowed hand operation of the swell shades - soon discontinued.

Another option can be found on the Gray & Davison organ (1881) in St. Philip & St. James, Rock, Northumberland (NPOR N04159) where there is a device that acts as a backrest on the organ stool, but is also connected to the swell shutters.

I've seen a picture somewhere, but can't trace it at present.

Every Blessing

Tony

#4 Vox Humana

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 05:48 PM

There's another passage which springs to mind, in Howells' Psalm-Prelude Set 1 No.1, where both feet are busy playing seperate lines and a crescendo is indicated.

I'm not at all sure that Howells necessarily expected a swell pedal to be used here, or even stops to be added. He might well have intended it a "mental state" rather than a real crescendo. Although Howells had been an organist, we should remember that he belonged to the era when the instrument was thought of at least partly as a one-man orchestra. When an eminent organist (who had better remain nameless) asked Howells about the texture of his organ writing, Howells apparently replied "Oh, I always think in terms of a string quartet".

Coincidentally that same organist also published a piece which ends on a crescendoing chord in which the feet are playing a simultaneous twelfth. I charged the organist that you couldn't do the crescendo and received the retort, "You can!" He clearly intended you to stick your right toe under the swell pedal and heave!

#5 Pierre Lauwers

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 06:09 PM

"we should remember that he belonged to the era when the instrument was thought of at least partly as a one-man orchestra. When an eminent organist (who had better remain nameless) asked Howells about the texture of his organ writing, Howells apparently replied "Oh, I always think in terms of a string quartet".

(Quote)
I think this should be taken with a bit of salt.
Howells did certainly know about the "organ reform",
to which the very word "texture" belongs very typically.
The string quartet outing was very probably a joke,
while Howells music is rather less "orchestral" than
much of the romantic repertoire.
It is "post-romantic" music, like a Tournemire's.
And it is firmly rooted in a dedicate organ tradition,
the british organ with its choruses (flue and reed) and
its idiosyncrasies, to the point playing it on any continental
organ is a challenge.

Best wishes,
Pierre

#6 Graham Powell

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 06:43 PM

[quote name='Vox Humana' date='Jan 30 2006, 05:48 PM']
I'm not at all sure that Howells necessarily expected a swell pedal to be used here, or even stops to be added.

That's an interesting point. I've just listened to my recording of Christopher Dearnley playing Set 1 No.1 at St Pauls' Cathedral in 1990, and he seems to open the box with the right foot during the right foot at the beginning of that line.

He clearly intended you to stick your right toe under the swell pedal and heave!

Yes, and I'm sure most of us have been guilty of this from time to time! :P

And listening to the massive texture of Rhapsody No.2 or No.3, I think the string-quartet quote is somewhat misplaced. Could he have meant this when referring to a particular piece of his organ music? But which one? :P

Graham

#7 Graham Powell

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 06:45 PM

Apologies, I meant to state "during the right foot crotchet rest at the beginning of that line."

I'm sure you realised though!

Graham

#8 Nick Bennett

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 06:50 PM

The now retired secretary of our organists' association once told me about a Conacher instrument he had practiced on as a young man where the back-rest was connected to the swell shuttersl. I took it he was pulling my leg, because he has a wicked sense of humour. Evidently not.

It sounds utterly impracticable though. Presumably it would have to be sprung so as to follow when the organist leaned forward. I have visions of the shutters slamming shut as the organist reached forward to turn the page, and the Swell manual becoming almost unreachable with the box open. Or perhaps vice versa.

Has anyone come across such a contraption?

#9 Vox Humana

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 07:32 PM

And listening to the massive texture of Rhapsody No.2 or No.3, I think the string-quartet quote is somewhat misplaced. Could he have meant this when referring to a particular piece of his organ music? But which one?  :P

I'm sure it was more general than that. Perhaps I should have explained the context. The organist in question did not like Howells's music; he believed in clear, lean contrapuntal textures and thought Howells's writing fussy and messy. Although I wasn't present when he asked the question, Howells may have picked up a hint of unspoken criticism. In that context Howells's reply may have been slightly dismissive. It would therefore be tempting to ignore it as irrelevant, but that misses the point of how important strings were to Howells.

In this earlier years - when he was still writing primarily secular music - Howells was very much pre-occupied with the sound of strings. In a BBC talk he spoke of "sonority without noise - which is the great abiding power of the string medium. In a world of sounding brass and tinkling cymbal and of noise magnified to the nth degree, this is it - sonority without noise - that marks the supreme contribution made by string music to the fund of our musical enchatment." [And, yes, I looked that quote up!] He once asked Elgar whether there was any hope of him acquiring the great man's sheer sonority of string writing. Elgar replied, "Yes. Study George Frederick ... now and all your life." It chimes.

But all that is meant by this, I think, is that string writing was the inspiration for Howell's textures and counterpoint. It certainly doesn't imply that we have to interpret his pieces as if they were chamber music.

#10 Pierre Lauwers

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 07:45 PM

Now that is an interesting point, Vox humana!

Pierre

#11 Graham Powell

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 07:48 PM

I'm not at all sure that Howells necessarily expected a swell pedal to be used here, or even stops to be added. He might well have intended it a "mental state" rather than a real crescendo.!

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Dear VH,

Thanks for your most recent response. Back to Set 1 No.1. Repeated listening to Dearnley's playing at St Pauls seems to suggest a crescendo is taking place, even though common sense suggests it probably isn't! :P

Perhaps it's the combination of that huge acoustic, and the texture thickening at this point? Am I the victim of an illusion, the organists' equivalent of sawing the lady in half? :P

Graham

#12 Vox Humana

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 08:10 PM

Hi Graham

I've just had a listen to Dearnley's recording (this is the Hyperion one, yes?) and I don't detect any crescendos at either of the two places Howells marked them. What I do hear is:

(1) a slight opening of the swell box in the first bar of the second system on page 5. This might have been accomplished by playing the right-foot marcato crotchet D as a quaver and opening the box in the ensuing quaver rest (it's exactly there it occurs, but I can't hear what happens in the pedal) or else by the right toe under the swell pedal technique (but in that case he could have done it where the hairpin is); and

(2) a Great piston pressed for the last chord before the fortissimo.

#13 Guest_paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk_*

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 08:58 PM

I was a great Howells fan from my chorister years, so very definitely felt the privilege of having weekly lessons from him for three years at the RCM. There are/were some inconsistencies and frustrations in his music and I nailed one or two of them in discussion.

Howells' organ writing - there are moments when the great man definitely forgets himself, and definitely forgets the fact that there has to be a performer in the physical sense. I once showed him something of mine with widely spaced double pedals and he suggested I couldn't leave it like that because the poor organist would have to do the splits - I pointed out that he had done this sort of thing in his own pieces many times. It turned out that he had forgotten ever having done it. Inspiration is like that, I think. In his youth he could just write it out - almost at the speed of dictation, I understand.

I took him to task about a silly habit of his in choral music of adding a quaver on the end of a 6 or 8 beat final note of a phrase. He explained that this was to make sure that the choir don't let go of the note early - i.e. before the end of the previous bar. I said that any good choir would feel obliged to perform what he had written. The truth is then, if you hope to sing these phrases exactly as HH actually wanted, hold full duration (all the full beats given) but omit the final (bonus) quaver.

Still talking about choirs, I asked him why he liked his scores to look so complicated, the answer was
'I want to keep the wrong people off them.'

Unfortunately there was nothing he could do about regular broadcasts of his works by soloists he didn't like, or whose style he considered inappropriate. I could name names, but I won't. He said that as a composer all you could do was smile and hope that any performance (however bad) led to a few more sales. He out--and-out hated Novellos and their editorial policy. He marked in more than one of my copies places where they had not allowed him to put exactly what he wanted. The cheek of it!

At one stage, he refused to let them have another organ piece if they were to put that anaemic St.Cecilia on the cover, that is when they commissioned a young artists (female of course) to get him to sit of a portrait - she got a fair likeness too.

We chatted a lot about organs. While I was with him, I was one of very few first study organists amongst his students and, being pretty lazy about composition, I often had to find some red herring to distract him from expecting to see new work every week! He did not like Neo-classical organs at all PL, not at all. His ideal organs, Gloucester first! - well and truly out in front - I speak of the Willis, later to be rebuilt by H&H at the design of Herbert Brewer. Even after this rebuild, HH still championed this organ over all others - mind you, it had been the first cathedral organ he ever played and, of course, it is placed in a stunning acoustic. Things to remember there:

1. The Choir organ was not enclosed - a single line marked 'choir mp' might mean a Gamba solo or flutes 8&4, rarely an unenclosed Clarinet.

2. The Swell at Gloucester was famous. Father Willis considered it one of his best, and in particular the pianissimo obtainable when it was closed. Ralph Downes was horrified to find that the HN&B box was nothing like as good - read the book if you don't believe me. Considering this is a four manual with only one enclosed division, it certainly should shut better than it does, even after several attempts at improvement

3. The only pedal 32' was a flue - an Open Wood - not an enormous tone but very fundamental in tone - even useable with pp manuals.

Other real favourite HH organs: Kings Cambridge (even though he had been organist of St.John's during the war) St.Mary Redcliffe, Bristol and his no.2 to Gloucester I'm going to keep secret in case I ever get permission to record. No outsider has since the present incumbent ws appointed - and no, I am not talking of Liverpool.


Leaving HH, I've always gone with Max Reger's suggestion - if you can't get louder, get faster! Some composers write a crescendo to indicate increasing urgency or intensity. I think it is positively dangerous to take all these instructions at face value. In French organ music, for instance, the dynamic instructions pp, ff etc. might well not refer to the stops at all - they often refer to the position of the swell shades. An example off the top of my head - opening of Messiaen's 'L'Apparition de l'Eglise Elernelle' starts on Full Recit, the composer's dynamic marking is pp.

#14 Vox Humana

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 09:24 PM

He out--and-out hated Novellos and their editorial policy. He marked in more than one of my copies places where they had not allowed him to put exactly what he wanted. The cheek of it!

I remember Howells going on about how he had to fight sometimes to get publishers to follow his notation and not amend it to their house style (yes, I had him for composition too!)

I wish - oh how I wish! - that I had had the courage to quiz him much more about his music. Did you ever ask him about the left-hand A at the bottom of the second page of Set 2 No. 2? It surely has to be an A sharp (I note that Dearnley plays one there).

In French organ music, for instance, the dynamic instructions pp, ff etc. might well not refer to the stops at all - they often refer to the position of the swell shades. An example off the top of my head - opening of Messiaen's 'L'Apparition de l'Eglise Elernelle' starts on Full Recit, the composer's dynamic marking is pp.

Sidney Campbell taught me very firmly that in French music the dynamic markings always referred only to the position swell pedal and that stop changes were always specifically marked. He had read very widely on the subject, I think, though I don't know his sources.

#15 Pierre Lauwers

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 09:50 PM

Dear Paul,

Thanks!

Am I correct stating there were only two Mixtures at Gloucester,
each 17-19-22?

To play H.H's music we need post-romantic organs, or a genuine
Willis like Gloucester was.
Anything like a Willis you will never find in Europe, while the post-romantic
continental organs are completely different from Arthur Harrison's.
Just a tought....
And please don't wait for this recording up until this second organ
gets an "update"!

Best wishes,
Pierre

#16 Vox Humana

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Posted 30 January 2006 - 10:06 PM

his no.2 to Gloucester I'm going to keep secret in case I ever get permission to record. No outsider has since the present incumbent ws appointed - and no, I am not talking of Liverpool.

Only guessing, but it's gotta be Salisbury!

#17 Brian Childs

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Posted 31 January 2006 - 12:10 AM

It is fascinating is it not to reflect on how we got from my original question to this point ? I am not complaining at all. It has been really interesting, and has served to strengthen my belief that there must be something in chaos theory after all.

The exchanges about Howells have been quite illuminating .

Since the easiest form of research is to ask someone who knows, are the swell pedals at St Paul's still of the Willis "infinite speed and gradation type" or were they changed at the rebuild ? Since I have never actually encountered any of these in the "flesh" so to speak could anyone enlighten me as to the extent to which they demand a different technique ? My understanding is that the position of the pedal controls the speed of opening rather than reflects the extent to which the shutters are open. Is this correct ? If so, would the toe under the swell pedal technique be as easy, or even possible, to employ on an instrument with this type of swell control ?

Brian Childs

#18 Vox Humana

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Posted 31 January 2006 - 12:51 AM

I played St Paul's decades ago and, unless I'm going senile (quite possible) the swell pedals were of the ordinary variety. As far as I can recall the only time I have ever come across the infinite gradation pedals was on the old organ at Canterbury Cathedral (even longer ago). Your description is correct. If I remember correctly, so long as the swell pedal remains very slightly depressed forward the box will continue to open slowly until fully open. The further you press the pedal the faster the box opens. To stop it opening, you have to return the swell pedal to a centrally sprung position (at least I think it was sprung). To close the shutters you used your heel to move the pedal in the opposite direction. What I do remember is, it took some getting used to!

I suppose with these swell pedals you could engineer a slow crescendo during a double-pedal passage by engaging the pedal a tad just before you start it.

#19 Pierre Lauwers

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Posted 31 January 2006 - 06:24 AM

"My understanding is that the position of the pedal controls the speed of opening rather than reflects the extent to which the shutters are open."

(Quote)

This is correct according to the descriptions I have.

Pierre

#20 ajt

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Posted 31 January 2006 - 07:55 AM

Since the easiest form of research is to ask someone who knows, are the swell pedals at St Paul's still of the Willis "infinite speed and gradation type" or were they changed at the rebuild ? Since I have never actually encountered any of these in the "flesh" so to speak could anyone enlighten me as to the extent to which they demand a different technique ? My understanding is that the position of the pedal controls the speed of opening rather than reflects the extent to which the shutters are open. Is this correct ? If so, would the toe under the swell pedal technique be as easy, or even possible, to employ on an instrument with this type of swell control ?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


I have these "delightful" pedals on my organ.

They take a lot of getting used to, I assure you!

Basically, as others have said, they are centre pivoted and sprung, such that they have no actual position information to give you (i.e. you can't tell where the shutters are based on the pedal position, because it always returns to centre).

We have 2 Smith's gauges (old Morris Minor fuel guages), which indicate the position of the choir and swell boxes. They can just be seen under the left hand stop jamb in this picture - http://www.laudachoi...ry/large-2.html

How far you push the pedal determines how quickly the shutters move. It is very easy, once accustomed to them to do a very slow crescendo, without actually moving your foot - just a gentle constant pressure, and off you go.

The toe under the pedal technique is just about possible, but actually very painful, because you're fighting against the springs without the advantage of a lever (i.e. the pedal itself with the central pivot point), so it requires significant toe strength.

The other thing that I find nigh on impossible is instantaneous sympathetic swells - i.e. when accompanying a choir, you can't instantly react to a slight + or - in volume from the choir, everything has to be pre-meditated, at least by a half second or so.

Another odd feature of this organ is that you can re-assign the swell pedals - i.e make the left hand pedal operate the swell and the right the choir, and vice versa. That's ok, but what's occasionally handy is being able to make one of them operate both boxes.

When I auditioned for this church, I needed to go from choir box shut to fully open during a registration change (down to choir strings - Vox Angelica, much more "Howells" than the swell strings), so I just kicked out my right foot as hard as I could. Unfortunately I hit the general crescendo pedal instead, so instead of choir strings and gentle 32' rumble, they got 32' contra tuba, full reeds, etc... Subtle!




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